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Getting 'Real' with cable

Sat, 01/31/2004 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner

RealNetworks’ chief views Universal Plug & Play as a key driver

The concept of the media center was a hot topic last month at the super-sized Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Hardware vendors, TV manufacturers and software makers all lined up with the wares and applications that they believe will take consumer media to that next level.

Smack dab in the middle of that discussion is Rob Glaser, RealNetworks Inc.'s outspoken founder, chairman and CEO. His hope is that his company's software and services will permeate PCs, media centers and other devices designed to play and share multiple applications, including music and games.

It was a whirlwind start to 2004 for Glaser. First, he presented Real's line of new products at CES; then he keynoted at the SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies in Dallas. CED Editor Jeff Baumgartner caught up with Glaser in Dallas to learn more about his vision for cable and beyond. An edited transcript follows.

CED: What's the CE set-up at the Glaser household? What kind of gizmos and gadgets do you use?

Glaser: I consider myself a bit of a gadget freak and maybe a little bit of an in-home research [project] as well. I have two different brands of PVRs, which I don't recommend. It allows me to kind of stay up on the cutting edge.

My favorite PVR is the new Pioneer-TiVo that has a DVD recorder. In fact, on the flight to Dallas, I was watching one of my favorite TV shows–Jon Stewart's Daily Show–and TiVo makes it super easy for you to burn DVDs of the shows you want for personal use. That's my favorite third-party product.

My favorite new product of ours is Rhapsody in the living room. I have some old PCs kicking around, so I actually have a PC that's dedicated to being a Rhapsody and a PC game player. It sits in a console in the living room and you can walk up to it like a jukebox and just pick whatever song you want.

I do have a plasma (TV screen) that has HD on it. I'm getting the HD from satellite because I'm in the inner city so my MSO doesn't offer HD. I've got it with two tuners, one that's hooked up to a DVR, a Replay [TV] brand in that case, and one that allows me to get HD directly.

CED: What caught your eye at CES?

Glaser: The main thing that caught my eye was how fundamentally identical everyone's vision is–the notion that the Internet is going to be the dial tone that will not only connect to the outside world [and] the Internet protocols will be the method for interconnecting all of these devices.

But there are two different sides of the house. There are the people who think it's got to be about open standards, and there are the people who think they can create proprietary cul-de-sacs.

I'm more convinced than ever that there's so much energy around the open standards approach that open standards is absolutely going to be the way to go.

CED: What do you see as Real's role in the media center concept? It seems that one company does one thing; another does something else and so on. Who does everything?

Glaser: Who does everything in any mainline consumer business? Take DVD. Take cable. Take TV before it. You needed industry standards that were not vendor-specific, were not company towns. In this whole notion of media centers, I would contrast the approach that we're taking, which is based on Universal Plug & Play. You have one PC or Mac in there as the hub and all of the point devices are open standard devices. I would contrast that with the approach Microsoft is taking with this Media Center PC, which is closed. The only apps on there are the Microsoft apps.

It's kind of a funny thing, because Microsoft's biggest success with the PC was predicated on being an open platform. Anyone could write applications on it. We could write applications on it. Adobe could write applications on it. Even Apple, which makes other hardware, could write applications on it.

Then you contrast all of that energy in this business of how you take this media into the rest of the home. I think the mainstream will be based on low-cost, high-quality, high-volume devices that use the PC as the server and display the content in a very fun, easy, high-quality way, and cost a quarter or a fifth of what a second PC would cost.

CED: Why are you closed out of this Media Center PC world that Microsoft has created?

Glaser: We have more software on regular Windows. When a PC is a PC and there's an open set of interfaces, we're not closed out of that at all. If you look at this particular variant, or mutant, thing that Microsoft has created, which is called the Media Center PC, all of the applications and all of the user interfaces around them are built by Microsoft, and they've pretty much cut the world off.

The reason I think it's a losing proposition is, number one: you can use it as a PC but there's no integration with the PC functions. Number two: if you already have a PC, you can perfectly well use that PC to run some of these other services in the background that talk to these low-cost devices, rather than paying another grand or $2,000 for a second PC if all you want to use it for is media.

CED: But there are different camps and schools of thought on the media center. There are those out there who see the set-top box as the center of that universe.

Glaser: There's the PC or the headend. The set-top itself is not powerful enough to be the management location for the content and the services that are out there. Yes, you can have set-tops with dedicated functions like the PVR or work as a node with the PC as the interconnection point. That is a fine and valid model.

There are people trying to do dedicated home servers that aren't PCs and we work with them and think they have interesting ideas. The approach that has the most promise is when you move away from a single set-top box to where you have a network of set-top boxes where one is the server and the others are the clients.

CED: But how does RealNetworks get into that set-top environment?

Glaser: There are two pathways in. The first path that was available chronologically, which was the path we didn't take. It was the path that the OpenTVs and ICTVs and Liberates tried to take, with these DCT2000-type boxes of quite limited [capability] and sort of build the best kind of app you can on those boxes. Our judgment was that there were a few problems with that. Because there was not a standard application development environment around that, [we believed] these services would have a hard time getting the critical mass.

We have followed the second path, which is to build great consumer services that are high-speed data applications, like our Rhapsody service or RealArcade gaming service, our SuperPass subscription interactive video product. Now we're moving to the second phase, which is these set-top boxes that allow you to take those applications and run the appropriate form of them on your television.

We're working with the cable industry. One of my main things down here [at the ET conference] is: Go to the cable industry's set-top box providers of choice, the Motorolas, the Scientific-Atlantas, etc., and say: "Here's a simple thing you can do. Implement Universal Plug & Play, implement advanced codecs like AAC for audio...and implement them for this next wave of services."

CED: Does OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform) open up a door for you?

Glaser: OCAP certainly helps. The assumption is that these will be a set of OCAP-based devices. OCAP is the application environment to build the applications, and its underlying protocols would be based on this Universal Plug & Play approach. OCAP has not tried to tackle at this point the secure media delivery protocols. That's why we need something like the Universal Plug & Play architecture that Intel and others have led to so we can implement that security layer onto the set-top.

CED: In your presentation at ET, you outlined a few other suggestions for the cable industry. You said they should support MPEG-4 and RealVideo 10. Competitively speaking, is there room for only two?

Glaser: Clearly, everything will have MPEG-2 for legacy support. The assumption is that people will want to have one solution for the box. The issue with MPEG-4 at this point is that some of the licensing terms they're proposing have made some of the operators understandably skittish with the notion of per-stream licenses, etc.

We support all of the standards, and if you want to go that way, that's great. But, meanwhile, we're continuing to innovate our PC products and we have something that's better than MPEG-4 that we're shipping today, which is RealVideo 10. So, you have a choice. Do you want to go in a standard direction and then have to hash out these license issues? Or do you want to move more rapidly than that where there's only one company to work with?

CED: When you look at broadband and cable, what's keeping you up at night?

Glaser: I got a little puppy about eight months ago. Generally he sleeps well, but every once in a while he seems to have nightmares.

But on a more serious note, I think the cable industry has a great opportunity around this convergence of digital cable and IP.

The DSL industry has a great opportunity to ride IP, not just from the DSL data world, but into the multichannel video world. The satellite guys, clearly with [Rupert] Murdoch buying DirecTV and...the success he's had with interactive services on Sky, they're going to go in an interactive direction, although they don't have the backchannel. They need to partner with someone, probably more logically DSL than cable, because of the multichannel video competitive reasons. I look at that, and I think, man, this next five years is going to be incredibly exciting. If anything keeps me up, other than a little yapping puppy, it's the sense of excitement that all of this is coming.

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